Not being conscious of the present moment while eating can lead to overeating and, simply, to not enjoying the meal. Tuning in to the present moment while eating, therefore, can have multiple beneficial effects. But there are a lot of conditions that get in the way of enjoying food.
Donna Gleeson, M.O.Ed., R.D., a dietitian at the Elliot Center for Weight and Health in Manchester, New Hampshire, offers some specifics: “I see stress in people’s lives as a real issue that mindfulness can help.” Gleeson says that it is important to learn how much time someone can devote to eating, because if a person feels that he has to eat in a rushed manner, it is harder to be present. He is likely to be thinking about his next task, phone call, or deadline. Additionally, a person who eats quickly may be less likely to check in with his body’s signals, such as a feeling of fullness, which can take up to 20 minutes to come about. When the person belatedly realizes that he overate, feelings of guilt and uncertainty about his ability to change often follow. These feelings often result in his losing the will to keep trying.
Learning to eat mindfully may have particular benefit for people with diabetes. According to Ruth Quillian-Wolever, Ph.D., Health Psychologist and Clinic Director at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, there are more benefits to mindful eating than just enjoying the meal. At the North American Research Conference on Complementary and Integrative Medicine in May 2006, Quillian-Wolever presented the results of a study on how mindful eating decreased insulin resistance. In the study, conducted with Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., and others, 140 people were divided into three groups. The people who participated in the nine-week, mindfulness-based eating awareness program had less insulin resistance after meals, meaning that their bodies were able to use insulin (and absorb glucose) more efficiently. This result indicates that these participants actually metabolized food differently than the group that received traditional weight-loss education. This benefit may be related to an increase in the relaxation response, which is a by-product of mindfulness that decreases stress.
Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease says, “Emotional stress plays an important role in just about all illneses, both directly and indirectly. For example, emotional stress makes arteries constrict and blood clot faster, which, in turn, may cause a heart attack. Also, people are more likely to smoke, overeat, drink too much, work too hard, and so on, when they are feeling stressed.” Ornish’s program is the first to offer documented proof that heart disease can be halted or even reversed by lifestyle changes.
Ornish’s program encourages a more mindful approach to food and eating. When a person deepens his awareness during a meal or snack, he can increase his confidence about his ability to respond to his body’s cues of hunger and fullness. Meals offer a relatively short period of time during which to practice paying attention, usually 3 to 30 minutes. Ornish likes to remind people considering change that “Even a few minutes a day can make a big difference.”
Principles of mindful eating
There is no single way to start eating mindfully. However, The Center for Mindful Eating, a nonprofit, nonreligious organization created by a group of mindfulness experts, offers the following four principles of mindful eating:
1. Allow yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food preparation and consumption by respecting your own inner wisdom.
2. Choose to eat food that is both pleasing to you and nourishing to your body by using all your senses to explore, savor, and taste.
3. Acknowledge your responses to food (likes, neutral, or dislikes) without judgment.
4. Learn to be aware of physical hunger and fullness cues to guide your decision to begin eating and to stop eating.